This week Foreign Policy published a “Sex Issue.” They explained their decision to feature a special issue with these words
Foreign Policy`s first-ever Sex Issue…is dedicated…to the consideration of how and why sex—in all the various meanings of the word—matters in shaping the world`s politics. Why? In Foreign Policy, the magazine and the subject, sex is too often the missing part of the equation—the part that the policymakers and journalists talk about with each other, but not with their audiences.…Women`s bodies are the world`s battleground, the contested terrain on which politics is played out. We can keep ignoring it. For this one issue, we decided not to.
It is commendable that Foreign Policy highlights the all too common silence about sex and gender politics in its own pages. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a serious and continued engagement, rather than a one off matter. Despite the editors’ good intentions, however, Foreign Policy disturbingly reproduces much of the dominant and sensationalist discourse about sex in the Middle East. The “Sex Issue” leaves much to be desired.
To begin with, it is purportedly about how sex shapes the world’s politics. But with the exception of one article that urges US foreign policy makers to understand women as a foreign policy issue and a target of their “smart-power arsenal,” its focus is almost exclusively on Iran, the Arab world, and China. Thus “the world” is reduced for the most part to Arabs, Iranians, and Chinese—not a coincidental conglomeration of the “enemy.” The current war on women in the United States is erased.
The primary focus is Islam and its production and repression of sex and gender politics in the Middle East. In discussing the role of fatwas in the regulation of sexual practices, Karim Sadjadpour parades a tone of incredulity. Leaving aside his dismissal of the centuries old tradition of practicing Muslims asking and receiving advice on sexual and gender practices, the article assumes an unspoken consensus with its readers: the idea of a mullah writing about sex is amusing if a little perverted.
Then there is the visual. A naked and beautiful woman’s flawless body unfolds a niqab of black paint. She stares at us afraid and alluring. We are invited to sexualize and rescue her at once. The images reproduce what Gayatri Spivak critiqued as the masculine and imperial urge to save sexualized (and racialized) others. The photo spread is reminiscent of Theo van Gogh`s film Submission, based on Ayyan Hirsli Ali’s writings, in which a woman with verses of the Quran painted on her naked body and wearing a transparent chador writhes around a dimly lit room. Foreign Policy’s “Sex Issue” montage is inspired by the same logic that fuels Submission: we selectively highlight the plight of women in Islam using the naked female body as currency. The female body is to be consumed, not covered!
For those of us now long familiar with the depictions of the Arab/Muslim woman as repressed but uncontrollable sex object, these images only reify the fascination with the hidden underside of that liberated, secularized self. This week, they also echoed two other media events, which paraded European repulsion from and fascination with the Muslim other. One was the Breivik trial, in which the ultra-right wing crusader against multiculturalism cited al-Qaeda almost daily as a source of tactical inspiration in his war against Islam. As Roqaya Chamseddine argues, the other image Foreign Policy called to our imaginations was that other spectacle of desire and repulsion at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. There, artist Makode Linde howled in black face and feigned pain as the Swedish minister of culture sliced through his cake-body designed like a “native” African woman. Then she fed it to him.
The painted on niqab introduces, adorns, and interrupts Mona El Tahawy’s feature article: “Why Do They Hate Us: The Real War on Women is in the Middle East.” The title is an adaption of the Fareed Zakaria article that exposed the “real” reasons behind September 11. In a moment when many of us have been relieved to move past binaries, El Tahawy has chosen to revive them.
That choice has inspired a deluge of tweets, blogs, articles, letters, and comments that have applauded her courage or attacked what many have called a reductive and simplistic analysis that flattens women’s lives, histories, and choices. The image of “Tahrir woman” who wore a blue bra that fateful day when Egyptian forces dragged, stripped, and beat her is the backdrop for El Tahawy’s argument: men in the Arab world, and especially Islamists, who she repeatedly locates in the seventh century, hate women.
We would suggest, as many have, that oppression is about men and women. The fate of women in the Arab world cannot be extracted from the fate of men in the Arab world, and vice versa. El Tahawy`s article conjures an elaborate battle of the sexes where men and women are on opposing teams, rather than understanding that together men and women must fight patriarchal systems in addition to exploitative practices of capitalism, authoritarianism, colonialism, liberalism, religion, and/or secularism.
Indeed, Mubarak’s authoritarian regime did not use the woman’s body alone as a site of its policies of repression and torture. El Tahawy cites Bouazizi several times as the spark of revolution in the Arab world. But she forgets Khalid Said, whose face—tortured and mangled beyond recognition—became an icon of the revolution. El Tahawy overlooks this shared experience of the body as a site of humiliation and pain. She does not see what Ahdaf Soueif powerfully explained: “As the tortured face of Khaled Said broke any credibility the ministry of the interior might have had, so the young woman in the blue jeans has destroyed the military’s reputation.” Indeed, the hatred of the people, women and men, has been a, if not the, unifying characteristic of colonial, neo-colonial, and authoritarian rulers in the Middle East and beyond.
In her sloppy indictment of Arabs, Muslims, authoritarian rulers, and Islamists, El Tahawy has papered over some messy issues that complicate her underlying message: liberalism is the solution. Why is female genital mutilation practiced widely in Egypt? Because men hate women. Why can`t women drive in Saudi Arabia? Because men hate women. Why are men and women against raising the age of consent in Yemen? Because men hate women. Hatred is a one size fits all answer. The use of hatred in this way is important. Hatred is irrational. It is a state or emotion. As Wendy Brown reminds us, such emotional or affective states are understood to be outside of, or unwelcome in, liberalism.
Of course, female genital mutilation and ages of consent are topics that require our careful attention. In the case of former, the reality is that women are often those that insist on the practice because of ways that gender and political economy regimes together make it a necessary rite of womanhood. In fact, critical thinkers have long argued that this practice has more to do with the lack of economic opportunity for women, the imperative to marry, and the hardening and modernization of tradition in response to colonial and neocolonial interventions (including rights frameworks) than some irrational and razor crazed “hatred.” The same insight could be extended to the question of ages of consent. A reductive framework of hatred makes these topics even more difficult to critically think about and work on.
Many writers and activists have called El Tahawy to account for erasing women’s histories. For Arabs, like all peoples, have histories that one must engage, as Lila Abu-Lughod reminds us, in order to understand the “forms of lives we find around the world.” Critics have pointed to the long history of the Egyptian women’s movement and that formative moment in 1923 when Huda Sha‘rawi took off her face veil at the Ramses train station. This is a useful point to revisit, if only to reflect on why the liberalism that Sha‘rawi and her cohorts fought for—men and women—drastically and resoundingly failed. One reason, and there are many, was that liberalism resonated with only a small elite. As Hanan Kholoussy points out, women under domestic confinement who like Sha‘rawi were expected to don the face veil made up only two percent of Egypt’s five million females at the end of the nineteenth century.
One would have to also critically and historically engage how women’s movements have been implicated in the policies and longevity of authoritarianism. After all, the two countries where women enjoyed the broadest scope of personal status law were Tunisia and Egypt, before the recent revolutions. Indeed, of all the countries of the Arab world, it was only in Tunisia and Egypt that a woman could pass her citizenship on to her children if she was married to a foreigner. (In Egypt there was a small qualification for women married to that other other, the Palestinian; post-revolutionary Egypt has, at least in law if not in practice, done away with this exception).
How can we account for these legal achievements under authoritarian regimes? We could turn to the source of El Tahawy’s inspiration: Fareed Zakaria’s “Why They Hate Us: The Politics of Rage.” There, Zakaria’s muddled logic counsels: “we have to help moderate Arab states, but on the condition that they embrace moderation.” As Mahmood Mamdani and Lila Abu-Lughod often write, moderate Islam has often been produced on the wings of women`s and minority rights.
We can also look to the experiences of feminists and women’s activists. Rema Hammami and Eileen Kuttab have shown that in the Palestinian context, the women’s movement lacked a coherent strategy linking gender equality to democracy. The women’s movement thus appeared to be sponsored by the Palestinian Authority; its fate became dependent on that of the political system. In 1999, Hammami and Kuttab warned:
Examples are myriad—eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union saw massive attacks on women’s rights issues after the fall of communist regimes because they came to be associated with other undemocratic and unpopular regime policies. Turkey, Algeria, Egypt are situations where you have small women’s movements whose popular legitimacy is lost because over time they have been seen as linked to or sponsored by authoritarian secular regimes.1
Is it liberalism then that will fight off the misogyny of authoritarianism? Is the much-feared Islamist summer the real enemy here? And if so, how do we explain that it is women just as much as men, as Shadi Hamid has noted, who have gone to the ballot box and voted Islamists into power?
El Tahawy’s presumes that she is starting a conversation. We respectfully invite El Tahawy to join the conversation among women and men in Tahrir and outside of it. After all, the shameful and state-sanctioned sexual violence of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ “virginity tests” did not take place in silence. They happened a day after International Women’s Day when women claimed Tahrir as a space of gender equality and liberation. The “virginity tests” did not meet silence either, as El Tahawy herself points out. Samira Ibrahim continues her fight; her following and her courage are formidable.
The battle against misogyny does not follow a “men hate women” formula. It cannot be reduced to a generic battle of the sexes spiced with a dose of Islam and culture. It cannot be extracted from the political and economic threads that, together with patriarchy, produce the uneven terrain that men and women together navigate. It is these lessons that one would have to engage before meting out an indictment about the politics of sex, much less envisioning a future of these politics. There is no one answer because there is no single culprit, no single “culture” or “hatred” that we can root out and replace with “tolerance” or “love.” Similarly, the absence of a sustained and critical attention to sex and gender cannot be solved, syllabus style, by a separate glossy special “Sex Issue,” the content and form of which reproduce what it purports to critique.
1 Rema Hammami and Eileen Kuttab, “The Palestinian Women’s Movement: Strategies Towards Freedom and Democracy,” News From Within 15:4 (April 1999), 3.